The meteoric rise of "citizen engagement"
Almost all development agencies promote some form of citizen engagement and accountability, often framed as 'voice', 'demand-side governance', 'demand for good governance' or 'social accountability'. The current World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, recently put it that, "citizen voice can be pivotal in providing the demand-side pressure on government, service providers, and organizations such as the World Bank that is needed to encourage full and swift response to citizen needs". There has, in turn, been a mushrooming of useful operational guidance on different "tools" for social accountability - i.e. steps, inputs and methodologies - that guide discrete interventions, ranging from citizen score cards to participatory expenditure tracking.
One might, however, be forgiven for thinking that some of the debates on citizen engagement need an injection of realism; especially as contextual factors can make or break a "tool's" implementation. A review of experience to date would be one good place to start.
The meteoric rise of "citizen engagement"
I’m consistently astonished by how little we know about the important stuff in development. Take the Millennium Development Goals – the basis for innumerable aid debates, campaigns, and negotiations. A large chunk of the MDG agenda concerns the size and quality of public spending – on health, education, water, sanitation etc. So obviously, the first thing we need is to know how much governments are spending on these things, right?
Well no actually, because we don’t have those numbers. Until now. Oxfam has teamed up with an influential and well-connected NGO, Development Finance International, which advises developing country governments around the world. Working with a network of government officials, DFI has pulled together and analysed the budgets of 52 low and middle income countries (With another 34 to follow). The result is a new database, called Government Spending Watch, (summary of overall project here) and a report ‘Progress at Risk’, previewed in Washington last Friday in a joint DFI/Oxfam America event to coincide with the IMF and World Bank Spring meetings. The full report won’t be ready ‘til May, but an initial draft exec sum is available, and here’s what it says.
This post is one of a 3-month Harvard Business Review series, focused on scaling entrepreneurial solutions and benefitting society through technology and data. The full HBR.org series is available here, and was launched with support from The Bridgespan Group and the Omidyar Network.
Open data could be the gamechanger when it comes to eradicating global poverty. In the last two years, central and local governments and multilateral organizations around the world have opened a range of data — information on budgets, infrastructure, health, sanitation, education, and more — online, for free. The data are not perfect, but then perfection is not the goal. Rather, the goal is for this data to become actionable intelligence: a launchpad for investigation, analysis, triangulation, and improved decision making at all levels.
While the "opening" has generated excitement from development experts, donors, several government champions, and the increasingly mighty geek community, the hard reality is that much of the public has been left behind, or tacked on as an afterthought. So how can we support "data-literacy" across the full spectrum of users, including media, NGOs, labor unions, professional associations, religious groups, universities, and the public at large?
The accelerated changes in communication flows are posing both opportunities and challenges in the global system. A recently published book entitled ‘Diplomacy, Development and Security in the Information Age,’ edited by Shanthi Kalathil (a former colleague and contributor to this blog), seeks to better understand the changing face of international relations in a new era, by examining two emerging themes: heightened transparency and increased volatility. Leading up to the publication, practitioners grappled with these themes, and how they are affecting international affairs. Craig Hayde, one of the authors, notes that transparency and volatility are increasingly inextricable concepts. He says “transparency does more than simply put information out there – it inculcates a shared value that information should be available”, but that it is also “facilitated by the same technologies that promote instability, risk, and uncertainty in the business of international relations.”
The collection of essays provides fresh thinking in an area that has mainly focused on the use and impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs). While several essays discuss ICTs, Kalathil points out that “the premise for the series is not to minutely examine new forms of technology and their impact. Rather, the premise for the series is that ubiquitous global communication flows have, over time, created an encompassing information environment that nurtures transparency and volatility in pervasive conditions and/or guiding norms.”
This is what a good day visiting an Oxfam programme looks like. I skim the interwebs (and this blog) to put together some thoughts on a given issue from our experience or what others are writing (‘the literature’). Then sit down with local Oxfamistas and partner organizations (who are usually closer to the grassroots than we are) to compare these bullet points with their reality. Last Friday, it was ‘how can NGOs build the accountability of local government.’ My ten minutes covered:
The world has become relatively less poor in the last few decades. People under conditions of extreme poverty -- that is, living on less than $1.25 per day -- have declined as a proportion of the world population, from 52 percent in 1981 to 22 percent in 2008.
How can states best promote active citizenship, in particular to improve the quality and accountability of state services such as education? This was the topic of a great two hour brainstorm with half a dozen very bright sparks from the secretariat of South Africa’s National Planning Commission yesterday. The NPC, chaired by Trevor Manuel (who gave us a great plug for the South African edition of From Poverty to Power) recently brought out the National Development Plan 2030 (right), and the secretariat is involved with trying to turn it into reality.
I kicked off with some thoughts which should be familiar to regular readers of this blog: the importance of implementation gaps, the shift in working on accountability from supply side (seminars for state officials) to demand side (promote citizen watchdogs to hold the state to account) and the challenge from the ODI-led Africa Power and Politics Programme that accountability work needs to break free of such supply/demand thinking and pursue ‘collective problem-solving in fragmented societies hampered by low levels of trust’, which seems a pretty good description of South Africa, according to the NPC. I gave the example of the Tajikistan Water Supply and Sanitation Network as an example of how this can be done through ‘convening and brokering’.
Once I shut up, it got more interesting (funny how often that happens). Some of the most interesting questions (and responses from me and others).
After an impressive turnout in Monday’s presidential elections, one thing is clear about Kenya: citizens are energized and ready to participate in shaping the future of their country.
Despite concerns of violence, voters in Kenya were undeterred and turned out in historic numbers Monday - over 70% participation - to cast ballots in the country’s first presidential election since 2007.
The remarkable level of participation had election officials calling the turnout “tremendous,” as polling places were kept open hours later than scheduled to accommodate lines that stretched “nearly a mile long.” Voters formed lines at polling places well before 6:00 a.m. when the polls opened, and many waited for up to 10 hours to cast their ballots.
While this election is a significant success, its true impact on the everyday lives of Kenyans will depend of how the new administration governs. Kenyans should be able to participate in the decision-making processes of their new government in as robust of a manner as they did when electing it.
This will be particularly important as Kenya embraces fairly radical decentralization of political and resource management to the county level as mandated by the new constitution. More open and participatory processes will be crucial to maintaining accountability and effectiveness at the county level.
Right to Information (RTI) laws can be a useful instrument for improving transparency – if the political will for implementation is sustained, and if the broader governance environment provides the enabling conditions for the exercise of the law. A research project that studied the implementation of RTI laws in a number of countries showed that implementation has been very uneven across countries. In some countries, RTI laws had been leveraged effectively for extracting information in a number of important areas, ranging from public expenditures, to performance and procurement, and exposing instances of corruption. In other countries, the existence of an RTI law had little impact in any of these areas, and oversight and capacity building mechanisms had either not been set up, or not functioned effectively.
The findings of the study are not surprising. The implementation gap between de jure and de facto reforms in countries faced with capacity constraints and political economy challenges is well-known. Yet, international agencies have pushed policy reforms without adequate attention to the constraints and challenges of implementation. The pressure to win support and legitimacy with international aid agencies has been an important driver of the adoption of RTI laws. The right has also been recognized in international human rights conventions, and more recently has gained increasing international attention (for instance, the existence of a law is one of the considerations for membership in the Open Government Partnership). Further, pressure from domestic constituencies has also propelled political actors to champion the law. But, once passed, capacity limitations, the erosion of political will, and active resistance have been important impediments to realizing the potential of RTI.
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
“Attention in the development sector has shifted sharply towards two areas over the past couple of years: youth and employment. While the huge increase in some countries' 15-24 year old population offers an opportunity for catalysing change and bringing in fresh ideas and new energy, many are grappling with the challenge of providing young people with meaningful work opportunities and concerned about the growing number of youth who are disillusioned about their futures.
The ILO reported that 74.8 million youth between 15 and 24 years were unemployed in 2011, an increase of more than 4 million since 2007. Globally, the youth unemployment rate is almost 13%, and youth are nearly three times as likely as adults to be unemployed. In some countries there are no jobs. In others, there is a skills mismatch and with some quality soft and hard skills training and support, young people could be ready for existing, unfilled jobs.” READ MORE